On 8 Dec., 1962, the First Session of Vatican Council II adjourned. Three additional sessions intervened before the Council as a whole attained closure on 8 Dec., 1965. Vatican II was, of course, the most significant religious news event of the 20th century.
Recently, I have been reading, ever so carefully, the long-awaited My Journal at the Council, by the French Dominican priest who is viewed as among the leading theologians of Vatican II, largely because of his roles in ecumenism, liturgy and, of course, ecclesiology. Raised to the rank of Cardinal in 1994 by Pope John Paul II, who also played a significant part in the Council, he died in June 1995. He was Cardinal Yves Congar.
Drawn by the Spirit from his youth toward ecumenical progress, Congar’s intellectual and academic life was all but interrupted by the rise of Nazism. Called into military service in 1939, he became a prisoner of war in 1940 until Liberation occurred in 1945. He then returned to academia, hardly losing any time in publishing.
A series of misunderstandings followed in 1947 and perdured until 1956 – a period he described as filled with denunciations, warnings, restrictive measures and distrustful interventions. Everything changed for the better with the election of Pope John XXIII. Almost immediately, he found himself (along with the famed Jesuit, Father Henri de Lubac), a Consultor to the Preparatory Theological Commission of the nascent Council. Eventually, as the great meeting began to move toward its First Session (11 Oct., 1962 to 8 Dec., ’62) Congar was already hard at work not only on the various documents, but also his Journal.
And thus the gigantic, highly complex process was launched.
Reading the Journal, one can begin to appreciate the enormity of the project, the vast regions of its ambience, the awesomely profound depths of its searching and reaching to detect the Holy Spirit’s earth-shattering vibrations.
Yet none of the above was visible or tangible from the start. The Holy Spirit does not speak into a vacuum, but into the hearts and minds of real people – bishops and their periti (experts), those whose spiritual and intellectual formations reflect different cultures, languages, nationalities, prejudices and general backgrounds. Moreover, Congar felt himself free again – "fully rehabilitated," in fact, when another Pontiff, Pope Paul VI, consulted him following his ascent to Peter’s Chair.
The Journal also cites names – the identities of the finest theologians who helped lead or steer Vatican II: Joseph Ratzinger, Karol Wojtyla, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Jean Daniélou, Augustin Bea, etc. About Karol Wojtyla he writes: "His personality is imposing. A power radiates from it, an attraction, a certain prophetic force that is very calm, but incontestable." (p. 714)
As this Year of Faith continues, I hope to provide a running commentary on several major sections of Congar’s Journal – as difficult a task as that appears to be. For now, I simply call attention to certain of the more "human" problems touching Congar and his work.
Regarding ecumenical issues, Congar attended the very first official gathering of Roman Catholics and Lutherans since the Reformation, a gathering which became prelude to the International Catholic Lutheran Commission in 1967. In the fall of the same year, he was a participant in the "working party" initiated for better understanding between Catholics and the World Council of Churches. He also had a hand in the establishment of the future Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, near Jerusalem.
Curiously, the French bishops in general were rather slow in consulting him; indeed, it was the Bishop of Strasbourg, Max Weber, who asked Congar to be his personal peritus (expert). (The Catholic theological faculty at the Strasbourg seminary, however, did not request his expertise.)
One most remarkable aspect of Congar’s incomparably great work at Vatican II was that through it all he remained not only seriously ill, but also totally fatigued. Again and again the Journal recounts that his health almost failed. In the entry on 5 Nov., ’63, Congar wrote: "This… is the worst day I have ever had over the past three years that I have been ill. I can no longer walk and have absolutely no strength. I am dragging myself along with the gait of a cripple…" And on 8 Nov., he wrote: "I am beginning to ask myself whether in a year’s time I shall be alive because life is leaving me." Yet he forged ahead, with the help of the Lord, all but breaking into new frontiers of research and practice. The Lord provides.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.